The Gilded Hour Page 4

Finally Anna turned to Rosa Russo, who presented herself and her infant brother with an expression that was meant to be composed.

Anna said, “May I hold your brother while I examine him?”

“Mama says, no. Mama says—” She paused. “Mama said you will take him away from us, and we must stay together.”

Anna considered, and then she leaned forward and lowered her voice.

“My mother died on the day I turned three, and my father a few weeks later. Every day I think about them, and what they would have expected of me.”

The girl’s eyes focused on Anna’s face, looking for something specific there, some answer. “Did you have brothers and sisters to care for you?”

“A much older brother, who was away at school. Too young to raise a little girl. So an aunt brought me here to raise with her family.”

“Your brother let you go?” Her expression was torn between shock and disdain. “Why would he give you away?”

“It was a difficult time,” Anna said, her voice catching. “Much like this time is for you all.”

“There is no excuse,” said the girl. “He should not have let you go. Where is he now?”

“He died,” Anna said. “In the war.”

“He should not have left you,” Rosa said, almost incensed. “He failed you, but I will not fail my sister and brothers.”

Sister Mary Augustin cleared her throat, ready to speak up in defense of a brother many years in his grave, someone she had never known and could not imagine.

Anna said, “Rosa, I hope you are right. I hope you can do for your sister and brothers what my brother couldn’t do for me.”

•   •   •

BY MIDAFTERNOON ANNA was back on the ferry with the sisters and the healthier orphans, half of whom had had their hair cut almost to the scalp to stop the spread of lice. The children who were ill—a possible case of tuberculosis and another of measles—had been left in New Jersey to be cared for, though no one could tell Anna exactly what that meant, to her disquiet. Also absent was Santino Bacigalup. Mr. Mezzanotte had arranged work for him on a farm somewhere in the countryside.

When Father Moreno returned, he voiced the same objections to this arrangement that Anna had heard from Sister Ignatia, in a tone only slightly less irritated. The pledge of a significant contribution to the poor box finally swayed him.

The priest looked at her suspiciously. “Are you trying to buy forgiveness for some sin? The Church no longer sells indulgences, Dr. Savard.”

“I’m not Catholic, Father Moreno. I would guess my idea of sin isn’t much like yours.”

She blotted the bank draft she had written out on his desk and handed it to him.

“And Sister Ignatia? Who will explain this to her?”

“I suppose it will fall to me,” Anna said. “I hope that will count as sufficient penance.”

The priest’s mouth quirked, stopping just short of a smile.

“The boy needs to be vaccinated,” Anna said. “Before he goes to his new employer. That is possible, I trust?”

Father Moreno said, “It will be arranged.”

As she was leaving he called to her, and Anna paused in the doorway.

“I don’t doubt that your concerns for these children are real and your intentions good,” he said. “But you are more like Sister Ignatia than you might like to admit.”

•   •   •

ON THE FERRY, surrounded by the children and the other passengers, Sister Ignatia did not hesitate to raise the issue of the Bacigalup boy. “You interfere,” said the older nun. “You interfere in ways that could have terrible consequences.”

“Doing nothing has terrible consequences, too,” Anna said calmly.

“Do not congratulate yourself. This is not a charitable act.”

“Of course it isn’t,” Anna said.

Sister Ignatia pulled back a little, surprised.

“No one ever does anything out of charity,” Anna went on. “Every choice we make benefits ourselves directly or indirectly. Even if it looks like a sacrifice, the alternative would be unbearable in some way. If I hadn’t helped I wouldn’t sleep well, and I need my sleep.”

Gray eyes moved over her face, looking for some clue that would account for such an odd and disturbing philosophy. “Such cynicism is unattractive in a young woman.”

“That may be. But it is necessary for a doctor and a surgeon.” Anna tempered her tone with a small smile.

After a moment Sister Ignatia said, “It was a mistake to ask for your help. I won’t do it again.”

“That would probably be best,” Anna agreed. “But I will still come and make sure everyone is vaccinated.”

•   •   •

ONE BENCH FARTHER on, Giancarlo Mezzanotte was in deep discussion with Rosa Russo. Wedged between the man and girl were Tonino and Lia, while Rosa still carried the infant.

There was something familiar about the man’s posture, though Anna was certain she had never met him before. When he inclined his head toward Rosa to listen more closely, she realized that he held himself like a doctor taking a patient’s history, weighing and measuring each piece of information, not because he thought the child was lying, but because her tone and expression told him more than her words ever could.

It was an odd thought. The man was still dressed in his work clothes; he might be a carpenter or a stonemason or even a mill worker himself, but unlike most men of her acquaintance, he had a talent for talking to children. Which probably meant he had children of his own or had grown up with many brothers and sisters. Or as an orphan.

He looked over his shoulder as if she had reached out to tap it and raised one brow. Somehow he had heard her unvoiced questions.

Anna gave a brief shake of her head. When he turned away again she asked Sister Mary Augustin the question she couldn’t hold back. “What kind of farm is Santino Bacigalup going to be working on?”

But Mr. Mezzanotte had heard her. He turned around again, hooking his elbow over the back of the bench to speak to her directly. He had a very deep and resonant voice, but he still had to raise it to be heard. “I sent him to my parents. They are floriculturists and apiarists. Beekeepers.”

The urge to tell him that she knew the meaning of apiarists and didn’t need a definition was strong, but she bit down on it, banishing with it the long list of questions that sprang to mind. Such as, if this man farmed in New Jersey, why was he on his way to Manhattan? And why did he speak as though he had been educated for work other than farming?

“I see I neglected to introduce you properly,” Sister Ignatia said dryly. “Dr. Savard, this is Detective Sergeant Mezzanotte. Of the New York Police Department.” Her jaw set hard, as though she had to bite the words off to let them go.

An unexpected turn, but it made sense to Anna. He had a natural authority and an air of quiet competence. What he lacked was the condescension that she had encountered in police when she dealt with them professionally.

“I was under the impression that most of the detectives are Irishmen.”

He flashed a smile that changed the very shape of his face. A wide, honest, open smile that felt to Anna like a physical touch.

He said, “That’s true, the police force is primarily Irish.”

“Just as most physicians are men,” said Sister Ignatia, which put an end to the conversation.

Anna had the distinct feeling that the older sister liked the detective sergeant and thought well of him. More than that, she seemed to believe that he needed to be protected from her, Anna Savard. She might have calmed the nun’s uneasiness by assuring her that she had no interest in the detective sergeant, and even if she did, she had never learned how to flirt with any degree of comfort. It occurred to her then that she wished she could flirt with him, just to see Sister Ignatia’s reaction.

Sister Mary Augustin brought her out of her thoughts. “I’m glad Detective Mezzanotte is here to explain things to the little girl. To prepare her. It’s terrible when it comes as a surprise.”

Anna’s attention shifted to the four Russo children. Despite Rosa’s sincere intentions, they would not be able to stay together. The orphanages were segregated by sex, so that Rosa and her sister would go in one direction while her brothers went in another. Most likely they would lie to her to make the separation less troublesome, Anna was well aware. They would tell her that she’d see the boys again soon.

People told lies to children as they told fairy tales, with complete certainty that disbelief would be suspended. Rosa Russo was not likely to be so easily misled. Anna wondered if she would lash out or beg or weep, or if she would keep her dignity as a way to protect the three children she saw as her responsibility. She would fight, that Anna knew with certainty.

The agents of the health department were waiting at the dock, middle-aged men with great showers of facial hair, scowling even before the first of the orphans came onto the dock.

Anna set off at a brisk clip, not stopping to take leave of anyone at all.

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